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Elkhart ordinance may halt feral cat rescuers

– For nearly 20 years, Chris and James Conklin haven’t had a problem feeding and occasionally sheltering the feral cats that come and go on their lakeside property.

But now, those days are gone.

Since November, the couple has been warned twice by mail that they’re in violation of a zoning ordinance that prohibits residential property owners from keeping more than five domestic animals.

The Conklins, whose property is in unincorporated Elkhart County near Ideal Beach, care for about a dozen feral cats, Chris Conklin told the Elkhart Truth.

She’s puzzled by the letters, which were prompted by a neighbor’s complaint.

“We’ve had cats here for 15 or 20 years. I don’t know who made the complaint, but I’m not gonna have them put to sleep just because somebody don’t like animals,” she said.

The Conklins have been given the option of appealing the violation or applying for an exception to the ordinance. Otherwise, they need to reduce the number of cats on their property or potentially face fines.

Members of the Elkhart County Feral Cat Coalition have stepped in and hope to challenge the ordinance, which they fear could could negatively affect the county’s entire free-roaming cat population.

“Our program is going to be in big jeopardy if this is allowed, because they can tell anyone in the county, then, that you have to apply for a special use variance, which they could very well turn down,” said Chris Bralick, president of the Elkhart County Feral Cat Coalition.

If that happens, she said, the coalition may have to revert to destroying feral cats rather than using the trap, neuter and return system aimed at reducing the county’s feral cat population. They’ve helped the Conklins spay and neuter 11 cats since March.

The coalition is working with an attorney to challenge the ordinance.

The group said the ordinance conflictswith the county’s animal control ordinance, which states that colony caretakers “shall not be considered nor deemed to be the owner of the free-roaming cats cared for in the colony.”

Despite the animal control ordinance, County Commissioner Mike Yoder said the zoning ordinance still stands.